Lisa Nandy, Labour MP for Wigan and chair of the all-party parliamentary group on international corporate responsibility, speaks to Alex Blackburne about the role of government in encouraging sustainable business.
The Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety, signed by major retailers like H&M and Marks & Spencer, was introduced less than a month later. Nevertheless, the incident cast dark shadows on western fashion brands whose products were manufactured in Bangladesh and at other factories elsewhere in the developing world.
For Lisa Nandy, the Labour MP for Wigan, Rana Plaza represented the latest in a long line of tragedies that place key social or environmental issues centre stage. She is chair of the all-party parliamentary group (APPG) on international corporate responsibility, which she founded in 2010. Former Green party leader and current MP Caroline Lucas is vice-chair, as are Labour’s Jon Cruddas and Lib Dem Martin Horwood.
Established because of what Nandy calls the “growing sense” among politicians that business needed to be held to the same legal standards and moral responsibilities as the rest of society, the APPG’s brief is to “raise awareness on issues surrounding business, human rights and the environment”.
Nandy explains that it watches how businesses respond to disasters like Rana Plaza with keen eyes.
“Another disaster will then crop up in some other area of business, and that’s when the spotlight will fall on that. That’s one of the reasons why we actually set the group up – actually, we don’t think that that’s good enough.”
The APPG’s pressure is primarily directed at British-based multinationals. Nandy says its actions build on work by Cruddas and fellow Labour MP Jon Trickett, who had lobbied to make sure there were ways companies could be held to account in the UK – often because it was sometimes difficult to do so in countries where the offences were taking place.
The Companies Act passed through parliament in 2006, putting in place some measures to hold companies to account for their actions overseas. Four years later, the APPG was set up with Nandy as chair. One of its priorities, she says, is to work with companies in advance of disasters to check they’re doing the right things.
She explains, “We’ve brought in companies to parliament who are trying to operate to much higher ethical and environmental standards and other people in their field to try and showcase the work that they’ve done. But the trouble with the current system is it doesn’t recognise or reward that sort of behaviour.
“One of the points that businesses consistently make to us is that when they do try to do this, they’re undercut by other companies who aren’t doing the same. The UK government’s response to that by default is often that British businesses can’t do this alone.
“We don’t think that’s good enough. We think that the UK government has to firstly bring pressure to an international level to make sure all businesses are operating to those same standards, and secondly, we think that it also should be working with UK businesses, to help them meet their obligations.”
Of particular concern to Nandy and the APPG is the strategy deployed by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), which she says has chosen to to target emerging or developing countries since the financial crash.
She picks out Colombia as one example, saying the country has “real problems” in terms of human rights and environmental standards – which the government and British companies investing there are not tackling quickly enough.
“We don’t think that the government – especially when you look at countries like Colombia – will be able to mainstream those conversations. The trade conversations happen separately from human rights conversations. That’s not sustainable and doesn’t produce the results we need”, Nandy says.
So what’s the answer? Nandy believes the government could do much more to incentivise best practice in terms of sustainability. Those businesses leading the way on social or environmental issues could be given a lot more support.
On the other hand, she says the current system “supports businesses that aren’t operating ethically”, pointing towards UK Export Finance – the UK’s export credit guarantee department set up to underwrite the activities of UK businesses operating abroad.
The APPG wrote a report in December 2012 that found the vast majority of export finance funding went towards the aerospace industry. Furthermore, it failed to conduct thorough checks on a company’s supply chain and didn’t require information on ethical activities like child labour. Despite the apparent “will” in government to accept the report’s recommendations, Nandy says there has been little action so far.
As for the feedback from business on the APPG’s work, she claims responses have ranged from uninterested to committed. Others see social and environmental sustainability as a tokenistic add-on.
Nandy accepts that the issues are by no means simple. Long-term commitment from every aspect of a business is required – from the CEO to the employees on the ground. But she adds there are some companies who clearly do get it.
“I’ve come from the perspective that there’s no such thing as good or bad businesses; there are businesses that are trying and ones that aren’t. Our point really is that the government isn’t doing enough to make sure the odds are stacked in the favour of companies who get it and not skewed towards those companies that aren’t interested.
“As Caroline Lucas has said before, no business has the right to behave antisocially. This is an antisocial form of behaviour and it is a moral issue. A number of business leaders have made that point to me – they didn’t go into business to destroy the environment or harm people’s lives. At the end of the day, this is a moral argument.”
Will Self-Driving Cars Be Better for the Environment?
Technologists, engineers, lawmakers, and the general public have been excitedly debating about the merits of self-driving cars for the past several years, as companies like Waymo and Uber race to get the first fully autonomous vehicles on the market. Largely, the concerns have been about safety and ethics; is a self-driving car really capable of eliminating the human errors responsible for the majority of vehicular accidents? And if so, who’s responsible for programming life-or-death decisions, and who’s held liable in the event of an accident?
But while these questions continue being debated, protecting people on an individual level, it’s worth posing a different question: how will self-driving cars impact the environment?
The Big Picture
The Department of Energy attempted to answer this question in clear terms, using scientific research and existing data sets to project the short-term and long-term environmental impact that self-driving vehicles could have. Its findings? The emergence of self-driving vehicles could essentially go either way; it could reduce energy consumption in transportation by as much as 90 percent, or increase it by more than 200 percent.
That’s a margin of error so wide it might as well be a total guess, but there are too many unknown variables to form a solid conclusion. There are many ways autonomous vehicles could influence our energy consumption and environmental impact, and they could go well or poorly, depending on how they’re adopted.
One of the big selling points of autonomous vehicles is their capacity to reduce the total number of vehicles—and human drivers—on the road. If you’re able to carpool to work in a self-driving vehicle, or rely on autonomous public transportation, you’ll spend far less time, money, and energy on your own car. The convenience and efficiency of autonomous vehicles would therefore reduce the total miles driven, and significantly reduce carbon emissions.
There’s a flip side to this argument, however. If autonomous vehicles are far more convenient and less expensive than previous means of travel, it could be an incentive for people to travel more frequently, or drive to more destinations they’d otherwise avoid. In this case, the total miles driven could actually increase with the rise of self-driving cars.
As an added consideration, the increase or decrease in drivers on the road could result in more or fewer vehicle collisions, respectively—especially in the early days of autonomous vehicle adoption, when so many human drivers are still on the road. Car accident injury cases, therefore, would become far more complicated, and the roads could be temporarily less safe.
Deadheading is a term used in trucking and ridesharing to refer to miles driven with an empty load. Assume for a moment that there’s a fleet of self-driving vehicles available to pick people up and carry them to their destinations. It’s a convenient service, but by necessity, these vehicles will spend at least some of their time driving without passengers, whether it’s spent waiting to pick someone up or en route to their location. The increase in miles from deadheading could nullify the potential benefits of people driving fewer total miles, or add to the damage done by their increased mileage.
Make and Model of Car
Much will also depend on the types of cars equipped to be self-driving. For example, Waymo recently launched a wave of self-driving hybrid minivans, capable of getting far better mileage than a gas-only vehicle. If the majority of self-driving cars are electric or hybrids, the environmental impact will be much lower than if they’re converted from existing vehicles. Good emissions ratings are also important here.
On the other hand, the increased demand for autonomous vehicles could put more pressure on factory production, and make older cars obsolete. In that case, the gas mileage savings could be counteracted by the increased environmental impact of factory production.
The Bottom Line
Right now, there are too many unanswered questions to make a confident determination whether self-driving vehicles will help or harm the environment. Will we start driving more, or less? How will they handle dead time? What kind of models are going to be on the road?
Engineers and the general public are in complete control of how this develops in the near future. Hopefully, we’ll be able to see all the safety benefits of having autonomous vehicles on the road, but without any of the extra environmental impact to deal with.
New Zealand to Switch to Fully Renewable Energy by 2035
New Zealand’s prime minister-elect Jacinda Ardern is already taking steps towards reducing the country’s carbon footprint. She signed a coalition deal with NZ First in October, aiming to generate 100% of the country’s energy from renewable sources by 2035.
New Zealand is already one of the greenest countries in the world, sourcing over 80% of its energy for its 4.7 million people from renewable resources like hydroelectric, geothermal and wind. The majority of its electricity comes from hydro-power, which generated 60% of the country’s energy in 2016. Last winter, renewable generation peaked at 93%.
Now, Ardern is taking on the challenge of eliminating New Zealand’s remaining use of fossil fuels. One of the biggest obstacles will be filling in the gap left by hydropower sources during dry conditions. When lake levels drop, the country relies on gas and coal to provide energy. Eliminating fossil fuels will require finding an alternative source to avoid spikes in energy costs during droughts.
Business NZ’s executive director John Carnegie told Bloomberg he believes Ardern needs to balance her goals with affordability, stating, “It’s completely appropriate to have a focus on reducing carbon emissions, but there needs to be an open and transparent public conversation about the policies and how they are delivered.”
The coalition deal outlined a few steps towards achieving this, including investing more in solar, which currently only provides 0.1% of the country’s energy. Ardern’s plans also include switching the electricity grid to renewable energy, investing more funds into rail transport, and switching all government vehicles to green fuel within a decade.
Zero net emissions by 2050
Beyond powering the country’s electricity grid with 100% green energy, Ardern also wants to reach zero net emissions by 2050. This ambitious goal is very much in line with her focus on climate change throughout the course of her campaign. Environmental issues were one of her top priorities from the start, which increased her appeal with young voters and helped her become one of the youngest world leaders at only 37.
Reaching zero net emissions would require overcoming challenging issues like eliminating fossil fuels in vehicles. Ardern hasn’t outlined a plan for reaching this goal, but has suggested creating an independent commission to aid in the transition to a lower carbon economy.
She also set a goal of doubling the number of trees the country plants per year to 100 million, a goal she says is “absolutely achievable” using land that is marginal for farming animals.
Greenpeace New Zealand climate and energy campaigner Amanda Larsson believes that phasing out fossil fuels should be a priority for the new prime minister. She says that in order to reach zero net emissions, Ardern “must prioritize closing down coal, putting a moratorium on new fossil fuel plants, building more wind infrastructure, and opening the playing field for household and community solar.”
A worldwide shift to renewable energy
Addressing climate change is becoming more of a priority around the world and many governments are assessing how they can reduce their reliance on fossil fuels and switch to environmentally-friendly energy sources. Sustainable energy is becoming an increasingly profitable industry, giving companies more of an incentive to invest.
Ardern isn’t alone in her climate concerns, as other prominent world leaders like Justin Trudeau and Emmanuel Macron have made renewable energy a focus of their campaigns. She isn’t the first to set ambitious goals, either. Sweden and Norway share New Zealand’s goal of net zero emissions by 2045 and 2030, respectively.
Scotland already sources more than half of its electricity from renewable sources and aims to fully transition by 2020, while France announced plans in September to stop fossil fuel production by 2040. This would make it the first country to do so, and the first to end the sale of gasoline and diesel vehicles.
Many parts of the world still rely heavily on coal, but if these countries are successful in phasing out fossil fuels and transitioning to renewable resources, it could serve as a turning point. As other world leaders see that switching to sustainable energy is possible – and profitable – it could be the start of a worldwide shift towards environmentally-friendly energy.